Why is imagination important to education?

Kieran Egan


While there seems to be general agreement that the development of imagination is important in education, it is not clear that this translates routinely into practice. Part of the problem seems to lie in the vagueness of the general conception of imagination commonly held in education, and its association almost exclusively with the "the arts." This essay argues for the acceptance of a richer conception of imagination, which sees it not as some particular intellectual function largely distinct from rationality, but rather as a flexibility, energy, and vividness of mind that imbues rational activity with life and richer meaning. This conception is largely what we have inherited from Romanticism, with some modern influences. The essay explores some implications of taking this richer conception of imagination seriously in education, focusing on its role in resisting conventional, stereotypical thinking, in learning, in its relationship with memory and memorizing, in its connection with narrative and metaphor, in the development of social virtues such as tolerance, in its contribution to a sense of mental freedom, in its support of the idea of, and pursuit of, "objective" knowledge, of its connection with our emotional development, and in its relationship with visualization, originality, and creativity.


This essay's title might seem to pose an odd question. The answer, or answers, might seem obvious. Everyone is generally in favor of imagination, considering it important as a quality that any educated person should display. Even so, it is worth trying to spell out the reasons why imagination is important to education--why educators should take imagination seriously--in some detail. First, spelling out such reasons can help us design practices and environments that will more likely stimulate students' imaginations. Second, spelling them out can uncover perhaps surprising educational implications of our concept of imagination. Third, it is clear that our concept of imagination is complex and pervasive, and equally clear that people often mean rather different things by it, and so spelling out reasons for taking it seriously in education will help to clarify the range of implications it has. Fourth, the general and rather vague support for developing imagination in education is most commonly restricted to dealing with self-expression in the arts and with a rather anemic sense of novelty in other areas of the curriculum; spelling out reasons why it is important to education might clarify its role throughout the curriculum. And, fifth, it must be said that the typical structures and practices of current schooling, as detailed in a wealth of reports, are designed according to principles which clearly do not consider imagination important to education.

Another way of considering why imagination is important to education is to examine the clichés that currently guide educational practice. To take a very prominent example, we are told that in teaching we must "start from where the students are." This is, like many similar clichés, the result of important insights, and we would obviously be foolish to ignore it. But once we accept its importance as a guide to practice and begin to think about it carefully, the clear guidance it appears to offer becomes a little problematic. Where "are" the students of a typical class?

Most commonly the principle embedded in the cliché is used to justify selecting curriculum content that is a part of the familiar environment to which students belong, as a starting point for units or lessons. It is also used to justify trying to describe students' stage of development, ability level, relevant prior knowledge, learning styles, and so on. These can obviously be beneficial in helping to plan effective teaching. But the most common uses of the principle with regard to curriculum content and to psychological conditions are also prone to interpretations that are educationally dysfunctional. The refinements of epistemological and psychological theories are commonly reduced to claims about "where students are" that seem to ignore the fact that students have imaginations.

Unfortunately many teachers seem to have accepted uncritically certain stereotypes of students that actually get in the way of their seeing "where the students are." In the case of curriculum content, the stereotype of students' interests from which one can motivatingly start is largely restricted to the familiar content of their daily experience. In the case of psychological conditions, the stereotype of students' forms of thinking is largely restricted to descriptions of their logico-mathematical cognitive skills.

These restricting stereotypes are brought under critical scrutiny once our assessment of "where students are" takes seriously their imaginative lives. Then, the notion that the most engaging content is to be found in their local environments and everyday experience looks entirely implausible, and that their logico-mathematical skills determine what they can have access to looks impoverished. This is not to suggest that there is no value in trying to assess students' cognitive skills, levels of development, learning styles and so on, nor in analysing what features of students' local environments and daily experience can play a connecting role to new knowledge. My point is, what were once important insights can degenerate into stereotypes that begin to undermine what they were originally intended to serve. The degeneration has occurred in these cases, I am suggesting, because their educational implementation has gone forward with too little, if any, attention to the characteristics of students' imaginative lives. My purpose in this essay is to reassert the importance of attending to students' imaginations and to see how taking imagination seriously might affect some of our commonest educational beliefs.

Somehow during the decades in which attempts were underway to make the study of education more rational by the application of philosophical methods and to make it scientific by the application of psychological methods, the central role of the imagination was lost sight of. Dewey's observation that the "imagination is the medium of appreciation in every field" (1966, p. 236), and Warnock's claim that "the cultivation of imagination ... should be the chief aim of education" (1976, p. 9) represent views that have been central to our culture since the Romantic period (and indeed much longer when we recall how "imagination" then took over characteristics that had earlier been a part of the concept of "soul" (McFarland, 1985) ), but they are views that educational discourse has failed adequately to incorporate. How the importance of imagination was displaced in educational discourse by the promises of educational philosophy and psychology--neither of which has dealt well with its slippery complexity--is not my concern here. We might expect, however, when putting imagination back into the center of our discussion, to find some of the familiar topics of current educational discourse themselves occasionally displaced.

"Imagination" is not so clear and precise a concept that one can launch into an essay assuming that all readers agree about what it means. And yet we all use the word fairly confidently; confidently, that is, about more or less what we mean and that what we mean will be understood by others as what they more or less mean by the word. I think this confidence is not entirely misplaced. That is, we use "imagination" to refer to a range of capacities we share. There is, I suspect, a fair amount of intuitive agreement about what this range involves. Once we try to excavate it, and categorize it, and label the parts, however, we seem to create disagreements or, at least, dissatisfaction with the characterizations. The problem seems to lie in the complex and protean nature of imagination, and in the fact that imagination lies at the crux of those aspects of our lives that are least well understood.

We have in common a capacity to hold images of what may not be present or even exist in our minds and to allow these images to effect us as though they were present and real. The nature of these images is very hard for us to describe, as they are unlike any other kinds of images we are familiar with in the "external" world. It seems, also, that people might experience these images quite differently--some having clear access to vivid quasi-pictorial images, some having such hazy experiences that the word "image" seems not really the right one. And the same person may be familiar with this range of what seem like different kinds or degrees of "images." It "is one of those problems where everything is up for grabs, including precisely what the problem is" (Block, 1981, p. 5). Imagination lies at a kind of crux where perception, memory, idea generation, emotion, metaphor, and no doubt other labeled features of our lives, intersect and interact. Some of the images we experience seem "echoes" of what we have perceived, though we can change them, combine them, manipulate them to become like nothing we have ever perceived. Our memory seems to be able to transform perceptions and store their "echoes" in ways that do not always or perhaps very often require quasi-pictorial "images," (as in the cases of sounds and smells, say). Novelty in ideas has nearly always been connected with the powers of imagination to "see" solutions to problems. Our emotions seem tied to these mental images; when we imagine something we feel as though it is real or present, such that it seems our "coding" and "access" to images is tied in with our emotions. The logic of imagination seems to conform more readily with that of metaphor than with any scheme of rationality we can be explicit about.

Each one of these topics is problematic, if not downright mysterious. Fortunately one does not have to solve them all before we can say something useful about imagination in education--as many people have already demonstrated. I will rely on the general and common sense of imagination through this essay, leading, I hope, to some refinement of it in the conclusion.

Imagination and conventional thinking

When we look at typical educational practice, we would be justified in assuming that the main purpose of education was to ensure that students accumulate knowledge, skills, and attitudes appropriate for the lives they are likely to lead. But when we look at the writings of the greatest educational thinkers we find that their main concern is rather different from this. If we consider Plato, Rousseau, and Dewey, for example, it is clear that the accumulation of knowledge and skills in the sense that seems to exercise our schools almost exclusively, is only a small part of what concerns them. What seems to be central to becoming educated in their view is not being bound by the conventional ideas and beliefs which people commonly grow up to accept. Education, they passionately assert, is about something that we typically attend very little to in our schools. Instilling knowledge is obviously not irrelevant to them, but their concerns with it are determined by the much more important question of how one enables a student to become an autonomous thinker, able to see conventional ideas for what they are. Education, to put it a bit tendentiously, is a process that awakens individuals to a kind of thought that enables them to imagine conditions other than those that exist or that have existed.

The programs that these great educationalists proposed in order to carry young children to educated adulthood differ each from each others'. Plato proposed a tightly regimented curriculum taking fifty years to ensure freeing his best students' minds from the constrictions of doxa or conventional opinion. Rousseau proposed manipulating his student's every thought, and preventing him from learning to read until about twelve years old, so that he would not be infected by all the second-hand ideas of ordinary social discourse and of books. Dewey proposed methods of instruction designed to encourage students to adopt a scientific, inquiring and skeptical attitude.

Everyone recognizes that one function of schools is to socialize children, to have them understand, be familiar with, and value the conventional ideas and beliefs of the society of which they are becoming a part. Imagination without such a basis is mere wildness, and is unlikely to be fruitful to the individual or to the society. This is a common sentiment: "We want the child not just to be imaginative, but also to be, in some sense, conventional, to learn and to some extent to participate in our shared thoughts, our shared form of life" (Hanson, 1988, p. 137).

Metaphors that are commonly used about educating beyond conventional socializing include "awakening" or "freeing" or "releasing." Mental life that is made up very largely of the conventional ideas and opinions of one's time and place is considered a kind of sleep or servitude. (Those who are most victims of this sleep or servitude are, of course, unconscious of their condition.) Plato talks of awakening the soul, or of freeing prisoners whose experience is of only shadows of reality. Such language constantly recurs in education to catch at that dimension of experience that education is crucially concerned with: "To be able to imagine is to be able to be free of conventional appearances" (Sutton-Smith, 1988, pp. 10/11). Not "must be free" or "free of all conventions all the time," but "able to be free." That is, education is the process that enables us, empowers us, to be not dominated by conventional appearances, ideas, beliefs, and practices. It provides the frame of mind in which we can perceive their utility and accept them as conditions of social life going forward, but in which we can also see their limits, their arbitrariness, and can imagine changing them should we deem it better.

This means, of course, that there is a constant tension in education between teaching the conventions whereby students will have to live and encouraging the capacities that enable them to gain some kind of mental freedom from those conventions--making them tools rather than constraints. This tension is prominent in the writings of the great educational thinkers, but unfortunately rather less prominent in many schools. The former part of the job, the socializing or inducting students into current conventions, seems to predominate. And this observation is not intended to underestimate how difficult it is to do even this job properly. The power to be free of these conventions tends to be cultivated much less, for many reasons: It is hard; we have no clear curriculum guidelines for achieving it; it clashes with what already takes up so much energy; and of course the school's bureaucratic needs for order and various kinds of regimentation exert subtle but powerful pressures against it.

Well, this is not intended to be a philosophical or sociological treatise, and I am perhaps wandering further than I need to emphasize the point that most of the great educational thinkers have seen the main enemy of education, not as ignorance, but as conventional thinking. Indeed, conventional minds may be encyclopaedically well-informed and perform superbly on scholastic achievement tests and have stratospherically elevated I.Q.s, and so on. A.N. Whitehead has referred to such people as the greatest bores on God's earth. What they lack, I am suggesting, is imagination, and this is a crucial educational deficit.

Imagination is not opposed to conventional thinking, but it provides a kind of context or further dimension within which conventional thinking is controlled, and from which it can be transcended. It is not opposed to rationality, but is that which can give rational thinking life, energy, and enriched meaning. As Bowra puts it "by exercising [one's] imagination [one] creates life and adds to the sum of living experience. [One] wishes to be not a passive observer but an active agent" (1949, p. 292).

So, a focus on the imagination reminds us that the forms of thought in which it is most lacking are also the forms of thought that have been the targets of the greatest educational thinkers. Their programs of education have not been proposed to prevent students being socialized and growing into the conventions of their time and place but have struggled to find ways of making sure that this process is accompanied by one which makes those conventions intellectual servants and not masters. And I am suggesting that today we can best further this aim by stimulating and developing students' imaginations.

Imagination in learning

Since the invention of writing, we have developed elaborate means of storing information. One feature of these systems of storage and recall, whether on wax-tablets, parchment, in books, or in computers is that what you put in is what you get out. Human learning is in significant ways different from such storage and retrieval. But unfortunately our technologies influence the ways we think about ourselves. Certainly if you think about learning a fact--say, that water boils at 100 degrees celcius at sea level--and then repeating that fact later, what you have done looks very like what happens if the fact is recorded somewhere in symbols and then later retrieved. It just so happens that in this case the storage device is your brain and the retrieval mechanism is your memory.

If we allow our technologies to determine how we think about our intellectual processes then one effect, which has I think been pervasive and very damaging to education, is to think of learning as a process analogous to recording symbols in the mind for later retrieval. The first thing we might note is that the human mind seems to be really very inefficient at this kind of recording and faithful preservation over time. A sheet of paper or a computer disk is much more reliable. Learning in this technology-analogous sense can be measured by how faithfully the records have been preserved when retrieved on a later test. This kind of testing goes on all the time in schools, and the results are taken very straightforwardly as evidence of learning. This has been going on so long and so ubiquitously in schools that the meaning of learning that is most common is this kind of mechanical storage and retrieval.

And what's wrong with that? Well, a number of things. Most generally what's wrong is that it ignores what is distinctive about human learning. In particular it leads to people forgetting that the human mind learns quite unlike the way a computer "learns," and that our memories are quite unlike computer "memories."

The human mind does not simply store facts discretely when it learns. Perhaps it can do this, and we might occasionally use this capacity to remember a phone number or a shopping list in the absence of a piece of paper. More typically when we learn even the simplest fact &emdash; that Vasco da Gama set off from Lisbon to sail around in Africa in 1497, arriving in India the following year, or that spiders have eight legs &emdash; we do not simply lodge these as discrete data in our brains. As they are learned they mix in with the complex of shifting emotions, memories, intentions, and so on that constitute our mental lives. Facts about spiders will gain an affective coloring connected with our feelings about insects in general and about spiders in particular. Vasco da Gama's voyages may trigger images of ships off alien coasts and the sense of adventure. Whether and how we learn and retain these particular facts is affected by the complex of meaning-structures we already have in place, which in turn are affected by our emotions, intentions, and so on.

The human memory is not an orderly place with slots or shelves for each item to remain inertly until called for. It is more like a shifting turmoil stirred by those emotions and intentions that are a part of us. Virtually nothing emerges from the human memory in the same form it was initially learned. All kinds of associations curl around each new fact, there is endless blending and coalescing, and connections are made, broken, and remade. And no small part of this activity involves the imagination.

It is becoming clear that human learning does not involve simply mirroring what is outside the mind, but crucially involves constructing or composing (Bruner, 1986). Each mind is different and is a different perspective on the world. In the process of learning, the student has to fit whatever is to be learned into his or her unique complex of meaning-structures that are already in place. This requires restructuring, composition, and reassessment of meanings. And it is in this ascribing of meaning that Warnock (1976) identifies one of the fundamental activities of imagination.

So taking imagination seriously and then considering learning in light of our developing conception of imagination we are focused onto those aspects of learning that emphasize meaning. Meaning does not reside in the facts themselves, or in the skills or whatever it is we learn, but in the interaction between what is learnt and our minds. And our minds are not simple depositories for facts, but centres of constant activity in which emotions, intentions, memories all intermingle with what is newly learnt to give it meaning.

This might seem to make the casual concept of learning so hopelessly tangled that the simplistic concept common in education today seems preferable, despite the educational cost. If we can't teach that a spider has eight legs without involving emotions, intentions, meaning-structures (whatever they are) and imagination then we might prefer to throw in the towel. I think the problem is not so bad; we don't somehow have to juggle all these sets of complex mental elements just to talk about learning. Rather we just have to remember that human learning is something quite different from storing information--and bearing this in mind is not at all difficult. The difficult part, I think, is in taking seriously its implications. And this is where taking imagination seriously begins to play havoc with some of the familiar established elements of the current educational scene. All those procedures of teaching, testing, and curriculum that see education as a process of accumulating knowledge and skills uninvolved with emotions, intentions, human meaning, and imagination, will tend to be inadequate to do more than create conventional thinkers and not educated people.

Imagination and memory

From the writings of Aristotle on, there has been in western culture a long connection between memory and imagination. This connection is not merely an historical curiosity but remains crucially important for education today. There is a tendency that has grown out of the rhetoric of progressivism to consider that "rote-learning," or learning in the conventional sense discussed above, is educationally useless. The valuable insight in this, about the pointlessness of treating students like storage devices for knowledge that is meaningless to them, has tended to be uncritically generalized to a hostility to any kind of memorization. One of the clear implications of the consistent observation of the relationship between memory and imagination is the importance of memorizing knowledge, facts, chunks of prose and poetry, formulae, etc. for the stimulation and development of the imagination. Ignorance, in short, starves the imagination. And we are ignorant of all that knowledge which we might know how to access, but haven't, or which we have learned how to learn, but haven't. Only knowledge in our memories is accessible to the action of the imagination.

This principle might seem to run into conflict with that of the previous section. There I seem to be arguing that the imagination is suppressed if students are set to learn lots of knowledge and skills and here I am claiming that the imagination requires the memorization of lots of knowledge and skills to be adequately stimulated. The two principles are consistent when we observe the point made above about the meaningfulness of the knowledge and skills that are to be memorized; ensuring that knowledge and skills are meaningful requires engaging the imagination in the process of learning. How we can go about ensuring this kind of imaginative learning would require much more space than an essay provides (see Egan, 1988, 1990). What it is important to establish here, however, is that the development of students' imaginations will not go forward without their learning and memorizing much and diverse knowledge.

This has been a constant theme in what have been called "neo-conservative" educational writings during the late 1980s (e.g., Bloom, 1987; Hirsch, 1987; Ravitch & Finn, 1987). The emphasis in these neo-conservative writings has been to make the valuable point that education is crucially tied up with knowledge, and that being educated means, put crudely, knowing a lot. But, as I stressed above, it means not only that. Education is also crucially about the meaning knowledge has for the individual, and that is where the imagination is vital. A person who has meticulously followed the neo-conservative kind of curriculum may still end up among the greatest bores on God's earth. What is absent from those books is attention to, and a clear sense of, how knowledge becomes meaningful in the lives of learners; how we can ensure that students engage, in the sense I am developing the phrase here, in imaginative learning.

In oral cultures one knows only what one can remember. And so techniques that made memorization easier were of great social importance. Among the techniques invented or discovered were rhyme, rhythm, and meter. That is, it was discovered that knowledge put in a rhythmic, rhyming pattern was easier to remember than otherwise. It was also discovered that if one coded the information &emdash; one's tribal lore &emdash; in vivid images, it was still more easily memorable. We see such coding in vivid images in the myth stories of the world. It seems fair to say, then, that it was the need to memorize that first stimulated and developed many of those capacities we now label imagination. Patterning of sound, vivid images, and story structuring were among the most important early social inventions. It was these technical linguistic tools and their effects on the mind that helped human groups to cohere and remain relatively stable through unknown generations (Havelock, 1963, 1986; Lévi-Bruhl, 1985; Lévi-Strauss, 1966; Ong, 1982). As I have explored elsewhere (Egan, 1988), these are not discoveries only of relevance to oral cultures long ago. Their social importance was a function of their effects on the human mind, and while we do not have the same social reliance on these techniques, they nevertheless still play important psychological roles for us. They can guide us in the task of ensuring imaginative learning and imaginative memorizing. That is, they can be used in learning so that they help the memory's task of creating sense and order and meaning among its shifting contents.

The narrative mind

Brian Sutton-Smith's stark claim that "the mind is ... a narrative concern" (1988, p. 22) expresses a view that is becoming increasingly widely accepted. It confronts the long-assumed view that the mind is, when functioning productively and properly, a logical concern working with abstract concepts. Reason was thus taken as evident only in limited logical operations. Increasingly these operations are seen as themselves grounded in and growing out of narrative and metaphoric bases (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). When someone could talk of a parent's reasonless love for a child, the sense of reason was restricted to what could be demonstrated in something like a formal logical fashion. A parent's love for a child is entirely reasonable, once we rescue "reason" from the prison it has been in and reconnect it to the imagination. Without this connection it is dessicated and more close to a form of calculation than to the richness and complexity of human reason as it operates in the narratives of our lives.

As it becomes clearer that the mind functions as a whole, and that this whole includes our bodies, then the sense of the mind as an elaborate calculating organ and reason as its calculations becomes increasingly untenable. It becomes clear that rationality is not a set of skills one can train but is rather tied up with all these hitherto neglected attics, basements, and hidden rooms of the mind, in which emotions, intentions, metaphors, and the imagination, cavort. And so it has been rediscovered that we make sense of the world and of our experience in narratives, that we can recall items in narrative structures better than in logically organized lists, that we more profoundly code knowledge in our memories by affective than by logical associations, that young children deal more readily and flexibly with metaphor than do older, schooled children, and so on and on.

The rediscovery of the narrative mind encourages us to pay more attention to imagination, because the imagination is more evident in the composition of narratives and in perceiving their coherence. Learning to follow narratives is thus seen to involve the development of more significant intellectual capacities than has traditionally been recognized. In particular, to quote Northrop Frye, "The art of listening to stories is a basic training for the imagination" (1963, p. 49). The ability to follow stories stimulates and develops the narrative mode of the mind, and its sense-making, meaning-making capacities. Many and varied stories can help to make more sophisticated our grasp on and use of metaphor, which is the connecting logic of narrative and which is a central component in the causality which holds stories together. The causality of stories involves both logical and emotional components together. That is, in stories the sequencing of events that are intelligible, that make sense, is not simply logical, though they have to be so in part, but it also involves an affective pattern. We jump from, say, the scene where Cinderella sees the sisters off to the ball to that in which the Fairy Godmother arrives. Following a purely logical causal sequence we might have to witness some dish-washing or dusting or coal-heaving or whatever, but the affective causality makes the connection between the two scenes immediate and directly comprehensible. Learning to follow stories is to develop these mental capacities. As they are developed, James Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegans Wake become comprehensible, and those sophistications of narrative comprehension become available for making sense of our own experience and of the world we find ourselves in.

The development of the narrative capacities of the mind, of its ready use of metaphor, of its integration of cognitive and affective, of its sense-making and meaning-making, and of its overarching imagination, is of educational importance because these capacities are so central to our capacity to make meaning out of experience. Our lives are "understood as embodying a certain type of narrative structure" (MacIntyre, 1981, p. 163). Any event or behavior has no meaning by itself; it "becomes intelligible by finding its place in a narrative" (MacIntyre, 1981, p. 196). Barbara Hardy puts it emphatically: "We dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate and live by narrative" (1968, p. 5).

So, in as far as we want the world to be intelligible to students, and in as far as we value the elements of the list Barbara Hardy gives us above, the stimulation and development of the narrative mode of mind is educationally vital. And this mode, born out of stories to help us remember, is the domain in which the imagination is indispensable.

Developing the narrative mode of the mind tends to receive less emphasis in schools because it is not seen to be productive, in the way that developing logico-mathematical skills is seen to be productive. The utilitarian role of schools communicates itself to children very readily. Nearly all children when asked why they go to school reply "To get a job" (Cullingford, 1985). Frye notes that "Every child realizes that literature is taking him [or her] in a different direction from the immediately useful, and a good many children complain loudly about this" (1963, p. 2). One role of education is to clarify for children that the life of the imagination offers rewards that are indeed not immediately useful but that are worthwhile. And, most significantly for education, access to narratives seems possible for everyone, literate or not, and they provide an obvious route to all kinds of knowledge. Educators might wisely develop "a respect for narrative as everyone's rock-bottom capacity, but also as the universal gift, to be shared with others" (Coles, 1989, p. 30).

Social virtues

I want to add to the list of educational values that follow from the development of the imagination such social virtues as tolerance and justice. Of course it would be too much to say that the evils of the world are due simply to a lack of imagination, but some of them seem to be so. The lack of that capacity of the imagination that enables us to understand that other people are unique, distinct, and autonomous with lives and hopes and fears quite as real and important as our own is evident in much evil. The development of that imaginative insight does not, however, guarantee that we will then treat them as we wish to be treated ourselves, but it is a necessary prerequisite.

But there are more particular connections to be made between the imagination and social virtues. To pick up on MacIntyre's point in the previous section, the ability to follow stories is connected with the ability to make sense of human experience because our lives are intelligible only within narratives observing that "man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal" (1981, p. 201) he points out a complexity of our fiction-making. It is not merely a mode of entertainment but is complicit in how we make sense of ourselves and how we behave as social animals: "There is no way to give us an understanding of any society, including our own, except through the stock of stories which constitute its initial dramatic resources. Mythology, in its original sense, is at the heart of things. Vico was right and so was Joyce. And so too of course is that moral tradition from heroic stories to its medieval heirs according to which the telling of stories has a key part in educating us into the virtues" (1981, p. 201).

Stories are good for "educating us into the virtues" because the story not only conveys information and describes events and actions but because it also engages our emotions. From Plato on, the power of stories to engage, and to engage the commitment of, their hearers has been clear. And it is that power that has made some wary or fearful of them, particularly in educating the young. The powerful stories of the world do not simply describe a range of human qualities, but they make us somehow a part of those qualities. They hold up for us, and draw us into, feeling what it would be like to make those qualities a part of our selves. In this way stories are the tool we have for showing others what it is like to feel as we do and for us to find out what it is like to feel as others do. The story, in short, is "the ability to exchange experiences" (Benjamin, 1969, p. 83). Such stories become, simply, a part of us; as Robert Coles quotes one of his students: "in a story--oh, like it says in the Bible, the word became flesh" (Coles, 1989, p. 128).

By imaginatively feeling what it would be like to be other than oneself, one begins to develop a prerequisite for treating others with as much respect as one treats oneself. Prejudice, in the religious, class, or racial forms which we see it so commonly, may be seen in part at least as a failure of imaginative development.

The story's power to engage the imagination and contribute thereby to tolerance and a sense of justice needs to be balanced, of course, with its power to do the opposite as well. If the story is one of, say, Aryan superiority and a Nazi salvation, then it can have an equal grasp on the imagination and lead to quite the opposite of toleration and social justice.

What is the protection against this kind of abuse? There seem to me two. The more trivial, recommended by Plato and so many others since, is that we be careful to tell the right kind of stories to children. The more important protection comes from the stimulation of the imagination by a rich and varied stock of stories, as suggested in the previous section. Vulnerability to stories like that of the Nazi's is a result, in part at least, of a mind unfamiliar with, and unsophisticated by, the stock of stories that constitute the culture's resources. The value of familiarity with the stock of stories and the kind of sophistication it brings is that one can understand the fictiveness of stories. The Nazi story is compelling only to people who do not understand fictions and how they work. Not that this is an easy lesson, yielding tidy distinctions between our fictions and reality, but the degree to which we become familiar with the range of stories available in our culture, to that degree we inoculate ourselves against confusing fiction and reality.

Literature is most commonly assumed to be the part of the curriculum in which we become acquainted with some of the great stories of our culture. Proponents of the educational value of literary studies also commonly argue that they can lead to social virtues. Northrop Frye certainly makes this argument eloquently. After demonstrating various ways in which literature stimulates and develops the imagination, he concludes: "one of the most obvious uses [of imagination] is its encouragement of tolerance. In the imagination our own beliefs are also only possibilities, but we can also see the possibilities in the beliefs of others ... what produces the tolerance is the power of detachment in the imagination, where things are removed just out of reach of belief and action" (1963, p. 32).

While literature undoubtedly has such a role in encouraging some social virtues, I think we tend to forget that among the great stories of our culture are those expressed in our science, and mathematics, and history, and so on. Mathematics and science can, if imaginatively taught, build a narrative which provides the student with a context within which the student's life and self become objects to be understood like other objects in the world. The narrative of our science can also contribute importantly to that "detachment in the imagination" that can lead to tolerance and justice.

Imagination and freedom

Some of the earliest stories of the Hebrew and Greek traditions associated the imagination with acts of disobedience that aimed to enlarge or led to enlarging human powers, in particular the power to imagine and plan a future different from the past. I am thinking particularly of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge and of Prometheus stealing the gods' fire. This sense of being able to make choices and to make the world more nearly like what one's heart desires has long been considered central to whatever it is in human beings that makes us feel freer than we assume animals or vegetables are. Their lives seem more determined or conditioned by their genetic heritage and their environment. We too are similarly constrained, of course, but nevertheless believe that there is some part of us that can plan and shape our behavior in ways that feel some element of freedom.

At a trivial level this is evident in daydreaming. I may imagine myself taller, handsomer, richer, more powerful, stronger even than I already am--a prodigious feat of imagination in the Walter Mitty tradition. No doubt some genetic defect or early environmental deprivation may predispose me to this kind of daydreaming, but I can choose to be blond in my daydream rather than dark, or rather than bald. The sense of freedom in these choices, and in the scenes we can project onto our inner mental cinema, may be in some degree illusory. Whether it is or not, it remains a capacity connected with our ability to imagine a different future and to plan and bring about the conditions for that different future. Being able to change the world around us in ways we find desirable and satisfactory is clearly an important capacity. It is what gives us our sense of freedom, illusory or not, and we sensibly value it. As it is a capacity whose strength or weakness turns on the strength or weakness of our imaginations, then clearly we will want to strengthen our imaginations in order to enhance our sense of freedom and enhance the powers that go with it. A well-developed imagination helps us to feel unsubdued by habit, unshackled by custom, in Coleridge's nice phrase.

"Imagination is what allows us to envision possibilities in or beyond the actualities in which we are immersed" is how Hanson sums up Sartre's general claim about the imagination's role in our sense of freedom (1988, p. 138). We have many accounts by survivors of appalling catastrophes and conditions which eloquently give credit for their survival to their envisioning possibilities beyond those in which they were immersed. Prisoners, and particularly concentration camp survivors, have consistently given witness that, despite the most terrible constraints, powerful imaginations can preserve a vivifying sense of mental freedom.

Hanson makes a further point, of some importance to education: "Imagination, then, is to be prized and nurtured because of its link to freedom; but, as is often the case, this exercise of freedom will be most productive if it is disciplined" (1988, p. 139). While we may value the mental capacity that can find expression in daydreaming, we might reasonably conclude that its exercise only in daydreaming is something of a waste. This is not to denigrate daydreaming--which seems to me generally a happy activity, rather underestimated. But the imagination needs also to be engaged with reality. The disciplines we have developed for trying to secure a sense of reality are areas within which the imagination can be disciplined. That is, physics, mathematics, and history, for example, are not disciplines to be learned separately from our imaginative growth. The imagination has to grow in these disciplines, so that their grasp on the world is enriched with meaning, and the imagination can recognize and work within the grasp they can gain on reality.

Imagination and objective knowledge.

Imagination is commonly considered quite distinct from whatever mental acts are involved in our attempts to gain objective knowledge. The rich sense of imagination we have inherited, however, seems to lead to the conclusion that quite the opposite is the case. The imagination thus should more properly be seen as one of our major tools in the pursuit of objective knowledge, and indeed as establishing the very conditions of objectivity.

One route to justifying this still uncommon view may be taken through a point Ruth Mock makes: "In the arts and sciences creative imagination demands that an individual frees himself from his immediate preoccupations and associates himself with the medium he is using--the paint, wood, or stone for the painter or sculptor, the words for the writer, the sounds for the musician or the facts for the scientist--so that with it he creates a new form which may to some extent be unexpected even to himself" (1970, p. 21).

What is important for my point here is the observation about the imagination's capacity to inhabit, as it were, the external objects with which it engages. We may see ourselves as distinct beings carving stone, say. But the experienced carver with a well educated imagination mentally extends into the material being worked, knowing what it is like to break here rather than there, how a stroke here will sheer away whatever is below, and so on. That is, the imaginative sculptor--or mathematician or historian or whatever--becomes in a curious sense one with the materials he or she is working. They feel in high degree something of what Michael Polanyi has described as a part of "tacit knowledge" (Polanyi, 1967)--we feel through the tools and objects we work with; they become extensions of our senses and as such incorporated into our imaginations. And it is not just that the stone, say, becomes an extension of ourselves, but that we become an extension of the stone; our minds conform with the nature of the objects that they seek to incorporate, whether those objects are stone and paint, or mathematical symbols, or historical events, or astrophysical phenomena. The world is not objects out there; in as far as we can know the world it is within us by means of that curiously reciprocal arrangement whereby we also extend ourselves imaginatively into it.

Well, this is rather airy-fairy language, of course, but it is so because we cannot adequately describe even the simplest functions of our minds with notable clarity, and the more complex can only be pointed at or indicated in such vague terms as above, in the hope that others will find the pointing and indicating sufficient for them to recognize in their own experience what is meant.

Any area of knowledge, skill, or practice has its own requirements for some form of objectivity; each area has its distinctive rules, structures, forms, nature, such that our understanding is made up in some significant degree in making our minds conform to them. And while in each area of knowledge, skill, and practice these requirements are different, what is common to them all is their call on the imagination. Objectivity relies on the imaginative capacity to inhabit the forms of the materials, knowledge, skill, or practice one works in.

I think this connection between imagination and objectivity is supported by the connection we commonly make between objectivity and being unprejudiced or being a just judge. We value having someone unprejudiced and objective judge many matters of conflicting interests. Such objectivity draws on the imaginative capacity to see the world from other than the limited perspective of one's own interests. And this is essential not just in relation to the social virtues mentioned earlier, but it is a necessary component in adequately understanding any area of knowledge. As such, development of those imaginative capacities that support objectivity is of importance to education.

Imagination and emotion

The importance of emotional development to education is no doubt obvious to everyone, and connections between the emotions and imagination are more evident, even in the rather restricted sense of imagination common in educational writing. However superbly skilled or knowledgeable people are, if they lack emotional maturity we recognize them as inadequately educated. Emotional immaturity is a damage which seeps into all aspects of one's life. To suggest that emotional immaturity need not interfere with the development of rationality is to accept, as has been quite common, the dessicated sense of rationality that has been so destructive to education during the twentieth century. This dessicated sense of rationality has been the focus of most schooling activity, and the belief that reason and emotion were separable parts of us has enabled whatever affects our emotional lives to be made subservient. Taking imagination seriously brings into question the assumptions on which the sidelining of emotions in schooling has been based.

The discourse of education seems to assume that we have an intellectual part of us and an emotional part of us, or a cognitive and affective part, and that these can sensibly be separated. It has become at least operationally the case that schooling is responsible primarily for the cognitive or intellectual part. One can, of course, try to ignore the affective dimensions of, say, mathematics and treat that area of human experience as a purely cognitive set of procedures to be learnt. What is achieved by so doing is at best to make mathematics something of merely utilitarian value and to destroy its other potential values to our lives. The great wonder and fun of mathematics is largely destroyed in schooling for nearly everybody, including for those who are "good at it" when it is taught in the typical dessicated way. Some lucky few can discover the pleasures of mathematics as adults, but for most it remains merely as something that is useful when making change or keeping accounts.

The wasteland called school mathematics is perhaps the most obvious casualty of the attempt to separate something deemed rational, cognitive, intellectual from imagination and emotion. The result is a disaster because it is built on assumptions about human learners that are false. The task we face is not simply to point out that mathematics is a passionate affair which can become engaging and meaningful only when students' imaginations make contact with the passion within it. The problem is that the very language of educational discourse is so infected with assumptions and presuppositions that need to be uprooted and challenged that people have great difficulty grasping how mathematics could be different from the way it presently is. For most people mathematics is what is in the textbooks. How we might re-inject imagination and emotion into such a mathematics generates a blank, because the textbooks presuppose that imagination and emotion are largely irrelevant to mathematics. This belief persists despite the very plain passion and imaginative genius of those people who generated the mathematical knowledge that is embalmed in textbooks.

The separation of emotion and intellect, I have argued already, has been educationally dysfunctional. We need to recapture Wordsworth's sense of imagination as "Reason in her most exhalted mood" (The Prelude, XIV, 192), and see the force of Frye's observation that "the combination of emotion and intellect we call imagination" (1963, p. 57). Taking imagination seriously in education directs us to transcend the intellect/emotion split and perceive both together in all areas of knowledge and all aspects of education. Our emotional lives are tied to our imaginations which are tied to our intellects. Imaginative learning, then, inevitably involves our emotions. Imagination is important to education because it compels us to recognize that forms of teaching and learning that are disconnected from our emotions are educationally barren.

Now, none of this is to suggest that typical classrooms are in future to be aflood with tears, wailing, and wild joy all day long. Rather, that whatever content is to be dealt with needs to be attached to students' emotions in some way, or that the human emotions that generated the content in the first place, or that attach to it in whatever way, need to be a part of what is dealt with in the class. (Elsewhere I have tried to show how this can be routinely achieved: Egan, 1986, 1988, 1990).

Visualization, originality, and creativity

These three topics are being squeezed together into a single brief section. At the beginning of this essay I noted that everyone is generally in favor of imagination and, it seems fair to say, it is the association of imagination with visualization, originality, and creativity that probably accounts for the bulk of support for its development in education. If I pass over these topics with just the briefest mention, it is not because I consider them unimportant, but simply that their importance, and their connection with imagination, seems to be already widely recognized.

Ted Hughes has observed that "the word imagination usually denotes not much more than the faculty of creating a picture of something in our heads and holding it there while we think about it" (1988, p. 35). This common, restricted, sense of imagination denotes a faculty that can be developed by practice, and that has already been incorporated into various techniques of educational value. The teacher can encourage students to form mental images of whatever is the subject of a lesson, concentrate on the images, elaborate them or move them, and then turn to writing or experimenting or whatever is the appropriate activity. There are many accounts in the educational literature reporting how successful a stimulus this kind of visualizing exercise can be. The teacher can make suggestions for elaborating or making more precise students' mental images, but an important ingredient is some silent time. A related development of the basic image forming capacity is available in the technique commonly called Guided Imagery. This is used most in social studies, as far as one can judge from the literature about it. In this case, as the name suggests, the images are stimulated by the teacher's descriptions, and the students follow a verbal account that details sights, sounds, tastes, and smells, creating for themselves as vivid an internal cinematic projection as they can. I have found that this particular form of engaging the imagination, with historical content in particular, can be immensely stimulating for students.

The importance of originality and creativity and their close relationship with imagination are sufficiently commonly made that I need add nothing. Perhaps I might, however, take away something. What seems to have become accepted as exemplifying originality and creativity most clearly is what seems to me a contextless novelty. This is most evident in what are called "creativity tests." What they test seems to be the ability to express, without any meaningful context or productive purpose, novel expressions or ideas or uses for objects (Barrow, 1990). While this may obviously require imagination, it seems to make no special call on the creative imagination. Encouraging rapid changes of focus and novel images seems as likely to discourage creativity as stimulate it. As Brian Sutton-Smith puts it: "this incessant distraction actually inhibits the real development of creativity by constantly distracting the children from one stimulus to the next, preventing the concentration and familiarity that creativity requires" (1988, p. 17). At least, one might be wary of tests that seem to embody conceptions of imagination and creativity that lack most of the complex characteristics explored above.


I have included a wide range of features in this attempt to sketch reasons why imagination is important to education. Perhaps some of you might feel that I have included too much, and that the result is a sense of imagination being involved in everything of educational importance. Such a reading would not mistake my intention, but I would want to argue that this sense would not include too much. Indeed, I think imagination should properly be very pervasive in education. Such a view is difficult to take only if we think of imagination as a thing, as a particular, distinct part of the mind. If we see it rather as a particular kind of flexibility, energy, and vividness which can imbue all mental functions, as a kind of mood of mind, then its role in all the topics I have mentioned above becomes easier to understand. To be imaginative, then, is not to have a particular function highly developed, but it is to have heightened capacity in all mental functions. It is not, in particular, something distinct from reason, but rather it is what gives reason flexibility, energy, and vividness. It makes all mental life more meaningful; it makes life more abundant. John Dewey expressed this sense of the pervasiveness of imagination this way: "Imagination is as much a normal and integral part of human activity as is muscular movement" (1966, p. 237).

An association of our current rich conception of imagination with Romanticism and romance perhaps merits a final brief note. One of the central romantic images is of the heroic journey as an allegory of our lives. It might be useful to let this image color our sense of a more imaginative kind of education than is commonly provided today. The process of education would thus be seen, quite properly, as an heroic journey, full of wonders, mysteries, dangers, obstacles, and so on. While schooling today might not readily evoke such an image, nevertheless education as an heroic journey gives us a sense of the direction in which we might try to move schools. And for those who would like to make schooling more like an imaginative and heroic journey for students, they may take heart in seeing their own present struggles as also an heroic journey, through the tangles of debased educational language and the obstacles of institutionalized commitments to narrow conformity and utility, in the direction of something more wonderful.


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